Table manners

There’s a lot of advice on the web about table manners in France, many of them implying there’s a lot of formality. Possibly that’s true, I guess I just don’t move in those circles! My own experience has been much more of informality, particularly for the kids.

Now, in Ireland, cooked school dinners don’t exist. For ten years I made packed lunches every schoolday for first one, then two, then three kids. Man, that’s a lot of sandwiches. And as a result of eating out of plastic boxes during their formative years, a lot of Irish kids are a bit vague as to what to do with knives and forks, particularly when so much convenience food is served up at home. My own guys when they were little often ate their tea with a spoon if it was cheesy pasta or something with rice, or with just a fork.

Not so in France. From maternelle upwards, children have a four-course cooked lunch at school which they eat with all the correct implements. The dinner lady sees to that! So even if they live on crisps and burgers at home, they learn how to use tableware. But not in quite the same way as English or Irish people do. The difference lies with the fork. The English way is to hold your fork between your thumb and forefinger and delicately spear your food to hold it still for cutting. Now here Ruadhri here demonstrates la mode française. The fork is gripped in a fist and plunged into whatever it is you want to cut up next. In her early days at school, Caiti would remark on this and think it was bad manners. But it wasn’t long before she was doing the same thing. So at our meals these days, Chris and I eat one way, and the three kids the other! Just another of those funny little cultural differences that make being an ex-pat so interesting.

And since we’re talking about food, I’d better include a recipe. You won’t need your fork for this, though. It’s homemade speculoos spread. Speculoos are spicy, gingery Belgian biscuits, very popular here in France. After Tintin, they’re probably the next best thing to come out of Belgium! You can buy ready-made jars of speculoos spread, but the DIY version is cheaper and tastier in my opinion.

175 g speculoos (or any sort of spicy biscuit)

300 ml of condensed milk (ideally non-sucré, but if you can’t find that, use the ordinary sort)

Crush the biscuits very finely with a rolling pin or blitz them in a food processor. Next, heat up the condensed milk, but don’t let it start to boil. Take the condensed milk off the heat and mix in the biscuit crumbs. Pour into a jar and let it cool to room temperature when it will thick and creamy. Don’t worry about the calories – just enjoy!

Fish and chips

Back at my blog after an outing. Chris and I were away a whole 30 hours, our first time leaving the farm together, and our first child-free outing since Caiti was small!

We went to Mayenne, to another Angling Lines fishing holiday venue, Oakview Lake, run by Martin and Shirley Barker, to witness fish being microchipped. Seriously. Oakview Lake is lovely with an island in the middle, which Chris covets! It was a great day and a bit out, the only downside being that none of the 50+ photos I took have come out. There’s nothing at all on the card in the camera. No idea what happened there, and disappointed as I’d taken some lovely photos.

There’s a small stock pond and we watched this being netted by Michel Bigot’s pisciculture team of Laurent and Emrick. This procedure is known as sennage.

A net is spread all round the perimeter of the lake and then slowly dragged in so that all the fish are forced into the second net, la poche, which is fixed behind this net. The poche is pulled to the bank and iron rods are put in to hold it in place. Then the fish can be lifted out for examining, sorting, chipping etc.

A team of four had come down from the UK to demonstrate the microchipping. Roy, Rich, Chris and Joanne were very organised and efficient. Roy showed us the equipment – a small ‘gun’ and rice-grain sized chip which comes premounted in a sterile needle.

This picture is from

The chip is inserted about 7 cm below the dorsal fin. The needle is slipped under the skin and, keeping just below it, pushed in to its full extent and ‘fired’ twice which puts the chip in position. A dab of bonjela as anti-septic and the job is done. The chip is then read with the scanner to check it’s operational. The fish has forgotten all about the proces by the time it goes back into the water!

This picture from Angling Lines

The point of microchipping fish is for managing them – monitoring growth and health – and also for security. The process was first used for koi carp, ornamental fish, which can be very valuable and subject to theft. Smuggling happens with ordinary carp too. A 40+ lb carp is worth more than one thousand euros.

We’ll be chipping our fish in stages – and a bit later in the year. Emrick and Laurent spent a cold February morning in waders and tee-shirts netting the fish. I’m not quite up for that!


In my absence, a good book to read

I’m not here! Hopefully this post has appeared as if by magic in my blog – it was scheduled to. Let’s hope it worked. Chris and I have abandoned the farm and the family for a night away and a morning doing something very interesting, which I’ll tell you about tomorrow.

In the meantime, a book review. I’ve read lots of living in France books recently, as research for helping me write my own. There have been a frankly frightening amount of disappointing ones, I have to say. I don’t like giving bad reviews so I shall ignore those ones concentrate on those that are worth picking up. Such as this one.

C’est La Folie by Michael Wright (Bantam Press, 2006)

First time round I didn’t finish this book. It is quite long book at 446 pages (the hardback version) and, well, I’m someone who gives up easily. My excuse is that I was just too busy establishing my own new life in France, in the same region as this book is set, Limousin, but right on the northern limits. But having come back to C’est La Folie, I found it completely captivating. Michael Wright is a very readable writer, he has plenty of interesting things to say and he paints French life in a sensitive, honest way. Too many life-in-France books go for a cheap laugh by stereotyping the French characters and make them all look like idiots. Not this one. We see real people who yes, have habits that may seem strange to us coming from a different culture, and idiosyncrasies like the rest of us, but who as a whole can’t do enough to help out and be friendly. Like the author himself.

OK, he’s a bit soft about his animals (but so am I!), and OK, he’s hardly renovator of the year, but he throws himself into his new life with a vengeance and admirably so. For families who move abroad, the children usually provide the gateway into the new culture, since they drag you, the parents, to the school gates and teacher meetings and onto school committees. You soon get to know other people. For someone on his or her own it must be much more difficult. But Wright has his aeroplane, his tennis and his music – and his simple desire to get on with his fellow human beings. These bring him into the midst of French life. However, his loneliness is palpable at times, but he’s a tough guy and keeps himself going. You laugh and nearly cry as you turn the pages.

This is an excellent book – entertaining, interesting, revealing and enjoyable. I defy you not to like it. I can’t wait to read the follow-up, Je t’aime à la Folie

A long shot

I’m the odd one out in the family in that I’m the only non-shooter. The other four are all members of the Ste Sevère Fédération de Tir (shooting club). Ruadhri, who’s 9, started going at the end of last year. I won’t be joining them. I’m not scared of firing a gun, it just doesn’t really appeal. When they go to the club on a Sunday morning, I happily head off instead for a long walk with Nessie and my MP3.

I went along this morning to watch Chris, Caiti and Rors have a session and take some photos so I could blog about this popular French pastime. (Benj is too busy revising for his bac blanc, although that seems to involve quite a lot of x-boxing, judging from the sounds floating down through the very thin ceiling.) Club members can use the range when they like, so long as they sign in and out and obey all the usual safety rules.





The Ste Sevère shooting range is in an old quarry, the perfect setting. It has several stands for shooting different distances. There are rows of beams with bits of drainpipe on to shoot things off, and also ‘washing’ lines that you can hang targets from. CDs are always very popular!

You have to wear glasses and ear protectors (lunettes et casques). No ifs or buts.

A large part of the fun is scurrying around after each round of shooting has finished to pick up bullets and bullet cases.

Chris prefers shooting with his pistol, a Browning Buckmark .22 LR. This has to have a trigger lock for when it’s not in use. Chris also has a Ruger Security Six .357 magnum. That one packs a punch.

Caiti prefers the rifle, a CZ 254, also .22 LR.

Gun ownership is a responsible business and in France it’s very carefully regulated. There is a pile of paperwork to be filled in if you want to get a gun. This paperwork goes via the gendarmes to the Prefecture. You have to be a member of a shooting club and you need to go to at least three sessions per year. The president of the gun club stamps your card to record your attendances. Other requirements are owning a safe to lock the guns away in and a medical certificate. You have to show the receipt for the coffre fort to the gendarmes and see the GP annually to make sure you are mentally stable enough to own a weapon.

The trigger lock on Chris's pistol

By all accounts it’s a very enjoyable hobby and it’s meant we’ve got to know the local gendarmes very well!


Can’t see the point

In an earlier post (, I talked about the work which was about to start on the 12th century church, St Clair’s, in Nouzerines. The bell tower was in urgent need of restoring, as were the frescoes inside and the gargoyles. St Clair’s will be getting a ‘paratonnerre’ – a lightning conductor. (I think ‘paratonnerre’ is a great word, but my all-time favourite French word is still ‘trombinoscope’ – that’s a collection of files or photos of members of an association. Sadly it’s not one you can toss into many conversations!)

Well, the community pulled together and got enough initial funds raised to get the ball rolling. So work began last November when the scaffolding was put up. It took six weeks. Chris and I walk down to Nouzerines school every morning with Ruadhri, our youngest, as he gets on the school bus there. (By making this 2.5 km walk each way, we save him an extra half an hour on the bus. OK, the walk takes 25 minutes but we’re still 5 minutes ahead! But more importantly it keeps the three of us in shape. We cycle most of the year, but over winter it’s just too blooming cold.) So we saw the progress, day by day by day.

I was sorely tempted to shin up and take some photos from the top of the scaffolding once it was finished. It wasn’t shut off or anything! Apparently the Maire went up and took pictures. I hope he makes those available to everyone. They’d be stunning.

Since Christmas a new team has moved in and vaporised the steeple. This photo shows it very clearly!

You’ll notice the weather vane abandoned at the very top. That’s how much steeple has gone. There was a plan to sell the slates from the roof, but at the same time as the roof dematerialised, a large pile of slates appeared at the side of the road along our daily walking route. I’m pretty sure they’re the same ones. Looks like someone forgot about that particular fundraiser!

I’ll finish with an update concerning dogs. The dog we found on Saturday ran off on Monday while we were walking her, and shortly afterwards we met the hunters who’d lost her. They were a bit vague as to why they hadn’t come round on Sunday to collect her from us! Anyway, they gave us a nice chunk of fresh venison for dog-minding, or attempting to. Then yesterday, another stray turned up, literally on our doorstep. He was a small mongrel, very hungry and nervous. He made himself at home, but not for long. His young owners showed up, having been told that Les Fragnes was something of an unofficial dog sanctuary these days! Here’s our second stray of the week.

And finally, Caiti made me a belated 100th blogaversary cake to celebrate my milestone 100th post the other day! It was even more delicious than it looked. I’ll put the recipe up soon so keep an eye out for that.

Why winter holidays?

These two weeks of the winter holidays are the most annoying of the school year. If you’re not a skier who’s heading delightedly off to the mountains, then there’s pretty much nothing else to do! It’s February, it’s cold, it’s grey, not many tourist attractions are open (we’re not, that’s for sure) and all in all, it’s pretty depressing. The Point Info Jeunesse in Boussac has organised some kids’ sporty activities – sessions of handball, volleyball, cycling, basketball and gymnastics, among others, so there is one ray of sunshine. Rors will be going to gymnastics to try and master forward rolls.

When I was at school, we had gym at least once a week, although I think it was called music and movement back then. Everyone, but everyone, could climb ropes, do forward rolls and cartwheels, and go bright red standing on their head for too long. However, in Ireland and here in France, most schools don’t have a dedicated gym. Games lessons consist of running around outdoors, Irish dancing (horrors) or its French equivalent, and other fairly random activities. Caiti went to gym club for a year so at least she learned to do a forward roll. But my two boys haven’t. Rors needs to do them in judo but he’s very reluctant for me to teach him. And frankly, so am I! I can’t remember the last time I did one. Now, I’m a very active person, doing tons of walking and cycling and llama wrestling, but my days of earning BAGA awards are long done. I’m pretty sure I’ll do something nasty to myself if I demonstrate a roll. (I did a cartwheel last year for the kids and it took several days for my wrists to recover!) I only wish teachers did their jobs properly!

Ruadhri loves his BDs!

A week would be quite long enough for this holiday. I’d much rather have an extra week at Easter or a proper half-term during the summer term when at least the weather will be better. Unfortunately the forecast is wet and grey for the next ten days, so that limits what we can do even more. Not that the kids are complaining. After a forced route march each day, Rors is happy to play with his lego and read BDs (bandes dessinés – comic strip books), Caiti to cook and write Scratch programs on her laptop and Benj is up to his ears in revision.

So where did this holiday come from? In 1939 an arêté introduced four days of holidays around Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday). This has somehow evolved into a fortnight ski-ing break that is staggered across the country’s three school holiday zones to avoid clogging the slopes! I’m guessing a lot of government ministers ski.

For whatever reason, we’re stuck with the two-week break, so we’ll just have to get on with it. And anyway, Chris and I have our Big Outing coming up on Friday, our first time away without kids for twenty years, and our first escape from the farm since we moved here. OK, we’ll only be away for one night … but we’ll still be away. See my Sunday blog for details!

Cake au jambon – a delicious apéro

I love coming across recipes in blogs, so here is my own contribution to this excellent practice.

I first came across cake au jambon (cheesy ham cake) when we were invited for an apéro by Roger Bleron and his wife. M. Bleron is head of the tourist office in Boussac, and also of the Comité Departmentale de Tourisme de la Creuse, and also of the Conseil Général. He’s a very important man locally, and also extremely pleasant. His wife, a very modern Granny, has bought the petits-enfants to see our llamas any number of times. Although incredibly busy, they found time to welcome us into their home when we were still very new newcomers.

Apéros are interesting. For us, still sticking to Irish eating hours, they’re actually after dinner (we eat around 5), or instead of. But of course for French people, they’re just a little warm up snack. The trick is not to stay too long. Your hosts will inevitably be too polite to tell you to sling your hook so that they can finally have their dinner. So, stay for the time it takes you to drink a glass of wine while chatting, have a few nibbles, and then get up to leave. You’ll definitely be asked back! Don’t get between a hungry neighbour and their food.

I couldn’t get over how delicious Madame Bleron’s cake au jambon was. She had cut small chunks for us to help ourselves to. My children demolished most of it, delightedly urged on by our hostess. I was thrilled when she gave me the recipe as we left.

The chef in wellies, daughter Caiti, whipped up some yesterday, and it is melt in your mouth gorgeous. You really must try it.

Cake au jambon

120 g flour

1 coffee cup milk

1 coffee cup oil (the cake comes out quite oily, so you can adjust this amount down)

1 sachet levure chimique

200g of grated Gruyere (or other cheese)

300g of diced ham.

Mix and leave to rest for 15 minutes. Grease a baking tin/flan dish, pour in your mixture. Cook for around 45 mins at gas 6-7, 200-220 degrees C (hot oven).

The oil in the recipe makes for a light, crispy crust. The ham tends to sink to the bottom but that doesn’t matter. This cake is all about the taste.

Serve it on its own as an apéro, or with salad and mashed potatoes or chips as a main course.

Dog blog

At least once a year we end up temporarily housing a hunting dog overnight. Lost ones wander along and hang around. At the moment we have a very sweet spaniel-something-cross in the horse box. She turned up on Saturday night and woofed loudly for a while around our stables (I think the llamas scared her). We stomped out in nightwear and wellies with – it was very late – and tracked her down. She had a phone number on her collar, which I rang, but it went through to the messagerie. I’ve texted as well, but still no-one’s turned up. Now, there were sounds of hunting going on rather late last night, possibly not legally, so maybe that’s why no-one has shown yet.

We’ve been taking her for walks round the farm to avoid accumulating too much poop in the horsebox, and she’s as happy as anything, and very obliging. She has her nose glued to the ground sniffing up scents. She’s also pointed a couple of times – I’m not sure what at, but she was definitely pointing! Maybe the way home? It’s fun to see, as our Nessie is a sheepdog/Alsatian cross so pointing doesn’t come into her repertoire. Actually, not a lot does, apart from being joyful!

I’m beginning to wonder how long we’ll have to hang to this dog. I’m not sure what the official procedure is, if indeed there is one, for dealing with stray hunting dogs. I’ve contacted the owner several times, so I reckon I’ve done my part. I’ll phone the gendarmes and Maire today to report her presence. But I shan’t be too worried if we end up having to keep her, she’s very sweet natured. Our neighbours at Les Combes acquired their dog this way – a lost hunting dog who never got reclaimed. I think it happens quite frequently.

Of course, there’s an annoying side to it. It’s not acceptable to let your dog go wandering off out of control onto other people’s land. We wouldn’t let Nesse roam. I currently have four pregnant llamas and alpacas, a young and still very small alpaca (Elrond, or Mutton Chops as he’s been nicknamed), free-ranging rabbits and chickens, and three cats. Intruding hunting dogs could easily upset them, or worse. We lost three cats last year, and we’re beginning to wonder if they were picked off by hounds. Generally, llamas aren’t bothered by visiting dogs, but alpacas are rather stress-prone and apt to miscarry if things get unpleasant.

I’ll keep you posted on what happens with our four-legged squatter!

Qu’est-ce que c’est ?

My computer is co-operating once more, thanks to Chris’s intervention, so I can put photos into my blog again!

I sent Ruadhri off on an egg hunt this morning as I’m convinced a couple of the chickens are laying – just not in the nesting boxes. However, despite an exhaustive search lasting about five minutes he didn’t find eggs, but he did find this:

I have no idea what it could be – possibly some kind of mixer? I shall have to do some research.

One object we found in the attic of Notaire’s House here at Les Fragnes when we moved in, and that we could identify, was a balance Romaine (steelyard).

Ruadhri weighing today's dinner!

How did it work? Over to Wikipedia for a snappy explanation:

The steelyard exemplifies the law of the lever, wherein, when balanced, the weight of the object being weighed, multiplied by the length of the short balance arm to which it is attached, is equal to the weight of the counterweight multiplied by the distance of the counterweight from the pivot.

You got that, right? In other words, hang your dead bunny/turkey/relative on the hook end and by, moving the weight up and down the shaft and using some nifty maths, you can work out how much it weighs.

One last intriguing object we’ve found is this one:

Possibly it’s a bed warmer? But I’m not convinced so any suggestions would be gratefully received.

If you like strange old things then check out:

The text is in French but the photos are beautiful and it’s still fascinating.

Sabotaged – but saved by the sweet life

My attempts to meet the post-a-day WordPress blog challenge are being sabotaged – by my own computer. It is refusing to let me upload photos into the blogs, and all the ones I had lined up for the next few days need pictures. I’ve done everything I can think of i.e. turn the computer off and back on again, but still no luck. My live-in computer-problem-solver guy is out for the day, taking our eldest son to Clermont Ferrand Uni for an open day. So I’m stuck!

But I have a book review up my sleeve which I’ll pop in for today. This is a book I really think you’ll enjoy.

Cooking-mad daughter Caitlin, the chef in wellies, introduced me to the wonderful recipes of American-born chef David Lebovitz when she made his French tomato flan for my birthday last year. (See the blog post at It’s melt-in-your-mouth delicious. So for Christmas I got Caiti a copy of his The Sweet Life in Paris, which is a combination of scenes from Lebovitz’s life in Paris and his awesome recipes.

Once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. Now, I’m not a foodie at all, but I was sucked in by this book. It consists of 29 chapters, each one being a short essay/longish anecdote  about some aspect of living in France, followed by several mouthwatering recipes. Lebovitz has a lovely style of writing – humorous, interesting and very readable. He has a sharp eye and is a great commentator on Parisien life. He’s a very honest writer – he admits to cutting queues, eying up handsome waiters and eating too much chocolate! But while Parisien life drives him to distraction at times, he never rants, just tells it like it is and respects the culture that he’s willingly plunged himself into.

The only disappointing thing about the book is the photograpy. The edition I have, a hardback by Broadway Books (2009), has rather low quality black and white photos which lets the side down. Recipe books need colour photos in my opinion. And oddly the author agrees. In one chapter, My clé to success, Lebovitz talks about how the expensive colour photos he had to pay for himself for one of his earlier recipe books were well worth the money. It’s a pity the publishers of this book didn’t have the same idea. However, I believe there is now a paperback version – I hope it has colour photos. You can also get a Kindle version of the book (that will be black and white photos only though).

So what are the recipes like? They range from drinks – kir and hot chocolate, to nibbles – spiced nut mix and pitta toast, to savoury courses (not many) – braised turkey in Beaujolais nouveau with prunes and warm goat cheese salad, to the forte of this book, the fantastic puddings such as cinnamon meringue with espresso-caramel ice-cream, chocolate sauce and candied almonds and plum and raspberry clafoutis. There are a lot of chocolatey recipes – what a book!

One critic has said that David Lebovitz is the best thing to happen to dessert since the spoon, which I have to agree with!

Follow David’s blog at for daily snippets about his Paris life.